We do not always eat because our body needs it. Every day we absorb millions of impulses and emotions which actually make us eat.
Whilst many of us know what we need to do to make positive changes to our health and well-being, it can often be much more difficult to put this knowledge into practice. This is especially true when it comes to our eating habits.
We may know what macros we need to hit, we may know what food choices are best for us, and yet, why do we so often struggle to apply this? Often we tell ourselves, ‘it’s just about will power’, ‘I just need to put in more effort’, ‘I just need to stay focused’. In reality, our relationship with food is often much more complex than this. There are many reasons why we eat, which often do not only relate to physical hunger, but a myriad of nun-hunger related reasons. It is only when we learn to take a step back and reflect upon our relationship with food that we can begin to address the underlying issues, and truly make long lasting changes to our eating behaviours.
Emotions play a big part in eating behaviour….think about it…from a young age we have learnt to associate food with comfort, reassurance, security…when we were babies and we cried, we were comforted with milk; as toddlers if we fell over we would be offered a hug and a lollipop. If we did well in exams we might get rewarded with a special meal. Go to your nan’s and she’d feed you a big dinner to show she cared. There you have it – a nice little conditioned response between emotions and food. However, using food in this way can lead to some unhelpful cycles which we may find ourselves getting caught up in: we have a bad day, we eat to comfort ourselves, we then feel guilty, which adds more stress and worry to our bad day.
Food does not help us to actually deal with the emotion, it just helps us to feel better in the moment, but often leaves us feeling worse in the long run. So what do we do about it? We need to learn to address the emotion directly – to notice what you are feeling (‘I feel sad’ or ‘I feel bored’.) This is important – sometimes we might not even notice how we are feeling before we find ourselves eating. Ask yourself what would really help (‘ I feel sad because I am lonely’ or ‘I feel bored because I have no plans’) so that you can think of more helpful solutions (‘perhaps it might help if I call my friend/family and make plans to meet’). Responding in this way helps us to get unstuck from these unhelpful cycles, cope more effectively with our emotions and develop a healthier relationship with food.
Of course, not all our emotional connections with food are bad. Being a foodie can also be an issue when it comes to bad eating habits. Having a fresh date which you want to impress with a new recipe every time, living a highly social life exploring new places to eat with your friends or simply loving food. Happiness and eating can also come hand in hand, so it is always important to pay attention to eating mindfully.
Moreover, in this high speed world we live in we might also find ourselves eating on autopilot – mindlessly eating breakfast in the car on the way to work, grabbing a quick something on the way to the gym, eating more than we’d planned as we have our dinners watching TV, picking at food as we are preparing our lunch.
Sound familiar? So why is this a problem? Well if we are eating mindlessly and on autopilot then this means that we are not helping our minds and our bodies to receive signals to register that we are eating. This can cause us to overeat or to still feel hungry, even if we have eaten. Engaging in processes such as tracking your macros (there are lots of good apps out there to help you do this) can be a good way to start to become more mindful of what you are eating. It forces you to stop, think and be accountable for what goes in your mouth! There are also specific exercises and practices that can help us to learn to be more present in the moment, so that we can be more aware of the decisions we are making around food.